Bomb-Sniffing Wasps

No, this isn’t from The Onion. Trained wasps:

The tiny, non-stinging wasps can check for hidden explosives at airports and monitor for toxins in subway tunnels.

“You can rear them by the thousands, and you can train them within a matter of minutes,” says Joe Lewis, a U.S. Agriculture Department entomologist. “This is just the very tip of the iceberg of a very new resource.”

Sounds like it will be cheap enough….

EDITED TO ADD (12/29): Bomb-sniffing bees are old news.

Posted on December 28, 2005 at 12:47 PM35 Comments


AMontville December 28, 2005 1:40 PM

If it does work, it’s interesting to note (as does the article) that this flexible detection tool is biological.

Ed T. December 28, 2005 2:05 PM

Yeah, and I can see the panic that would ensue if/when one of those containers broke, and released the wasps into a crowd. Never mind that they are the non-stinging variety.

Also, I am guessing this species is non-native to many areas — any idea what the environmental impacts are of importing the species into such areas?

ARL December 28, 2005 2:15 PM

They have been using Honey Bees for locating land mines for years now. Bees, ants and wasps can follow very faint chemical odors to locate food and each other.

Thomas Sprinkmeier December 28, 2005 2:50 PM

There are moral questions left unanswered.

Can the wasps still fly with the kind of protective cloathing we give human bomb-detectors, or are we treating living things as a disposable resource?

Todd towles December 28, 2005 3:05 PM

@ Thomas

Our world treats many living things as disposable resources. Are trees are living thing? I would say so…but they aren’t animals. 😉

I just fail to see how a wasp would set off a bomb. The Wasps aren’t disarming the bomb, only detecting. This is the reason why human bomb techs have to wear suits in the first place.

moonglum December 28, 2005 3:10 PM

Thomas: I will assume you are being sacastic…if not do you eat only minerals? where do you draw the line as to what is living and what is not.

Adam December 28, 2005 3:12 PM

It will be fascinating to see how this pans out in trials in the real world. What sorts of perfume, soaps, foods, etc, will cause the grouping effect?

Will that grouping be seen as probable cause for further searching, like dog sniffs are? (Despite the documented un-reliability of dogs.) On the bright side, its probably harder for wasps to play Mr. Ed and respond to the desires of the people around them…

jammit December 28, 2005 3:14 PM

Not being able to protect the bees might be a problem, but they can only detect bomb material and not defuse because we don’t have pliers small enough to fit into their tiny pinchers, so I guess that would be ok. The Isralies use bomb detecting pigs for two reasons:
(1) They have a more sensitive sniffer than dogs and easier to train.
(2) Most radical Muslims really, really hate pigs.

Anonymous Idiot December 28, 2005 4:34 PM

Gee… when I first saw it, I read wasps as WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and thought maybe Bruce was looking to thin the herd of Bush supporters…

(yes, this is meant in jest).

Joseph December 28, 2005 4:39 PM

This species is the kind of wasp that lays their eggs inside other larvae, and then their young hatch and slowly eat their way out of the host larvae while it is still alive. Lovely little critters.

Kelly's Heroes December 28, 2005 5:15 PM

@Todd towles

“I just fail to see how a wasp would set off a bomb. The Wasps aren’t disarming the bomb, only detecting. This is the reason why human bomb techs have to wear suits in the first place.”

Well you fail to see because you don’t know about the hundreds of different types of bomb triggers out there. Mercury switches, wind/touch sensitive fishing line looking stuff. And that’s just the few things I know about.

As for the bomb suits on human bomb techs, they’re only there so that the family can have a nice funeral. Anything over your friendly, average size grenade and the concussion alone, from the bomb they’re working on (if it detonates) is going to kill the bomb tech. And that’s -from- an Air Force EOD tech.

Joe Huffman December 28, 2005 6:45 PM

I admire the innovation in the research laboratory but I am skeptical of success in the real world. The wasps apparently have to be trained for each specific volatile chemical. The 2,4-DNT mentioned in the article as being present in dynamite doesn’t exist in other explosives such as ammonium-nitrate/fuel-oil mixtures. Ammonium nitrate by itself doesn’t really have any volatile byproducts–other than, in some cases, ammonia which would result in the obvious problem with false positives. Fuel oil sensing would also have similar problems with false positives as well as being easily replaced with almost any hydrocarbon including such things as diesel and/or powdered sugar.

The ATF as well as foreign regulatory agencies require plastic explosives to be manufactured with a small percentage of volatile chemicals such as Ethylene glycol dinitrate, 2,3-Dimethyl-2,3-dinitrobutane, para-mononitrotoluene, or ortho-mononitrotoluene. This is to make it feasible to easily detect the presence of the explosives.

It would be overly optimistic to assume terrorists would conform to these requirement in the manufacture of their own explosives.

Jonathan December 28, 2005 6:49 PM

Didn’t Ernst Jünger comment on this in the mid-1950s? I do remember that Zapparoni, the villain of ‘The Glass Bees’, began his industry with artificial insects trained to detect smells. But weren’t there real bees as well?

Roy Owens December 28, 2005 7:56 PM

Obvious questions:

  1. How specific is the training? If trained to detect nitroglycerin, would the insect detect only that and not other chemicals with the same or even similar functional groups?

If the training is specific to a particular molecule, then there will have to be a swarm of wasps, each differently trained, to cover all of the chemicals peculiar to bombmaking. (I very much doubt the wasps will be able to smell aluminum pellets.)

If the training is not so specific, then false positives will bog down the system.

  1. How time-stable is the specificity? Once the insect is trained to criterion, will the specificity hold there indefinitely? Or will the specificity drift over time?

How long is a wasp’s training good for? Will it have to be retrained after an spell of searching, going through people’s luggage or cargo? Will the huge host of airborne chemicals confuse the critters? Is this useful span in days, hours, or minutes?

Anonymous December 29, 2005 8:41 AM

“I just fail to see how a wasp would set off a bomb. The Wasps aren’t disarming the bomb, only detecting. This is the reason why human bomb techs have to wear suits in the first place.”

I think these are just for detection, not for any subsequent action.

Bruce Schneier December 29, 2005 8:43 AM

“Can the wasps still fly with the kind of protective cloathing we give human bomb-detectors, or are we treating living things as a disposable resource?”

I simply have to assume this is a joke.

ajt December 30, 2005 8:29 AM

My partner is one of the people with their name on the patent for this technology. She worked for Joe a number of years ago when this work began. It’s all very old hat really, nothing very exciting at all.

Anonymous December 31, 2005 7:17 PM

” “Don’t wasps have a really short lifespan?”

If they’re cheap enough, who cares?”

PETA- just wait

Raul del Angelo January 3, 2006 8:01 PM

I think the real use of these is to smell out draft dodgers, pot smokers, Muslims, members of the ACLU and all those others who don’t have there specially scented Party ID card. The real use of this technology is to detect a scent that you expect to find not one that may occur. Like National ID cards.

Nicole January 30, 2007 5:44 PM

Hold on a sec. Why are we even discussing the morality of using wasps to do a job that could potentially save human lives??? If it works, which I’m skeptical of, I say a human life is worth any number of wasps. Use them.

jessie August 20, 2007 6:42 PM

I am trying to answer to my homework and i was trying to see what the average life of a wasp. Like how long can a wasp live? Can y’all help me? Email me by 7-20-07 by 10:30!

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.